04/28/19 “Keeping God’s Earth”

Genesis 2:4-15

I’d never thought too deeply about the creation stories in Genesis until I attended my first Bible Study class in 1991.  It was the Bethel Bible Series and our teacher, Mr. Hanna, was a wise and faithful man.  He was good at making things easy to understand.  I learned a lot, both from the series and from him.  One of the things that Mr. Hanna taught us that really made an impression on me was about the last verse of our reading for today: that God took the man God had created and placed him in the garden in Eden to carry out a specific task: to “till the garden and keep it.”

Mr. Hanna told us that the word “keep” has a special meaning in Hebrew, which the story was first written down in.  It doesn’t mean to hold onto something for yourself.  It doesn’t mean to treat something as though it belongs to you and you can go ahead and wring out of it all the benefits you can. Instead, it means to watch over and protect something.  In the Biblical sense, keeping something means we give it our aid and our support.  We preserve it.  When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the translators kept that same idea, using a word that means to take careful measures in looking out for something or someone.

But this is the thing that Mr. Hanna said that really stuck with me. He said that the word “keep” is used in the Genesis story the same way we use it in our weddings. Maybe you remember this from your own wedding or ones you’ve been to.  It comes right at the beginning of the service.  The bride and groom are asked in turn: “Will you have this person to be your spouse? Will you love them, comfort them, honor and keep them?” In that one word, the couple is asked, “Will you watch over and take careful measures to protect your spouse?  Will you support them, help them, and preserve their well-being? Will you look out for their safety and security?”

Mr. Hanna said that’s exactly what God has in mind for our relationship with the natural world.  We are to keep God’s creation.  God has placed us here, at least in part, to care for what is God’s own, to take careful measures to protect it, preserve it, and look out for its safety and security.  The creation story we read today attempts to explain how we came to have that privilege and responsibility.

Genesis actually has two creation stories in it.  They aren’t eye-witness accounts, of course; there were no reporters on location “in the beginning.” These are stories that had been told for hundreds or maybe thousands of years before they were written down.  They are stories a people used to explain as best they could how the world as they knew it came to be.  Stories like this are called “origin” stories—the stories of a people’s beginnings.  In fact, that’s what the Hebrew title of the book of Genesis means: “in the beginning.” While many people believe that Moses is the original author, there are multiple versions of the creation story because, over the years, other authors and editors continued to shape and revise the story so it would be helpful to their readers and listeners in their own particular times and situations.

So, there are significant differences between the creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 sounds more like poetry, with its beautiful refrain, “and there was evening and there was morning, the first day,” and the second, third, fourth, and fifth days until the sixth day when God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image,” and then the seventh day when God rested.

Genesis 2 reads more like prose.  It doesn’t have the rhythm and imagery of Genesis 1, but it has more details, especially about how human beings came to be.  Unlike Genesis 1, Genesis 2 tells us that God created a man on the same day that God made the heavens and earth, before anything had begun to grow (because God hadn’t yet caused the rain to fall on the earth, and there was no one to cultivate it anyway).  To make the man, Genesis 2 tells us, God squeezed and shaped and molded the dry, barren, thirsty dust. That dusty form became a living being when God breathed into its nostrils.

It was only after that that God planted a garden in the midst of a barren desert region called Eden.  Nothing simply springs into being in Genesis 2 as it does in Genesis 1.  There is no “let there be a garden.” Instead, the author of Genesis 2 tells us, God “planted” a garden. God chose the perfect location in Eden, where it would get just the right amount of sun and a stream would rise out of the ground to water it, and God labored over the dusty earth to create a garden, just as God had labored over the dusty earth to create a human being.

God placed the man in it and then caused what God had planted to grow: an orchard, with trees that would feed not only the body but the soul—trees that were pleasant to look at and good for food. Genesis 1 describes creation as “good” but it doesn’t describe it as beautiful.  The writer of Genesis 2 tells us that God’s garden was more than simply a source of nourishment for the body. It was also pleasant to look at—food for the soul that God had breathed into humanity.

Of course, a garden needs water.  A stream rose up and watered the garden, and then flowed out to water the region around it—four branches that irrigated lands rich with other treasures: gold and onyx and bdellium with its wonderful perfume.  Then, after describing how the garden came to be, and how the man came to be in it, Genesis 2 announces humanity’s God-given role in the garden: : to till it and keep it.  To cultivate it and take care of it. To treasure it and preserve it, as a loving spouse would do.

Whether you believe that the creation story of Genesis 1 or Genesis 2, or both, are literal explanations of how the world and humanity came into being, or you believe that they describe, in poetry and prose, the no-less-miraculous and God-shaped process of evolution, one of the truths  Genesis 2 story is that we are commissioned to be the caretakers of God’s creation.

So, what tasks fall to us as we care for God’s creation? Certainly, God has given us this garden to cultivate and farm, so that it can nourish our bodies.  As God’s farmworkers, we’re given the responsibility to encourage the fruitfulness of God’s global garden.  But, we also are charged with protecting it, so we also have to find a balance between technologies that help us produce more and the impact they have on our environment, both in the long- and short-term.

Being good stewards of God’s garden means making sure that all people are able to enjoy its abundance.  Right now, we produce more than enough food to feed all seven billion people on the planet, plus two or three billion more.  And yet more than a third of the world’s people are chronically hungry or undernourished.

If some have too little, that means others have too much.  As God’s gardeners, we each need to do what we can to make sure that the abundance of God’s garden is available to every person. Scripture often reminds us of this. Through Isaiah, God asks, “Isn’t this the fast I choose: sharing your bread with the hungry?”  John told the people who came to him at the Jordan to show their repentance by sharing their extra food with those who had none.  Jesus was very specific about the criteria he would use to separate the sheep from the goats on judgment day; one of them is giving the hungry something to eat.

John Wesley encouraged Methodists to live simply so we would have more to give.  That’s where we each have a chance to make a difference.  It may be through literally sharing the cans and boxes on our shelves or in our shopping baskets.  It may also be through sharing the money would spend on ourselves. Changing our habits and behaviors can make a difference, like buying fair trade products that ensure that small farmers in poor countries can make a living from their work, or eating less meat to ease the demands meat production places on our land, water, and energy resources.  Sharing what we have, through our giving and our living, is good stewardship of God’s creation.

But God created a garden that is both functional and beautiful.  As God’s gardeners, we are to care for and preserve its beauty as well as its productivity.  That means curbing pollution in all its forms.  I’m proud of the efforts Zion is making—installing energy-efficient lighting, recycling much of our trash, and providing a way for the community to dispose of electronics in an environmentally-friendly way. But air pollution still exists and will get worse if the current administration succeeds in cutting back clean air standards. Many of our lakes aren’t clean enough for fishing and swimming. Noise pollution can prevent us from enjoying the beautiful sounds of nature. Light pollution is so widespread that millions of children will never experience the glory of the Milky Way where they live.

When I consider how badly we sometimes treat God’s creation, I think of the Psalm that says “I lift mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help.”  What happens to our spirits when we can’t see the beauty that often conveys God’s peace and presence to us? What happens when we can’t hear the birdsong, or safely breathe the air that whispers through fields of grain?  As those who are commissioned to keep God’s creation, we need to make sure that our nation’s leaders know that we expect them to value its beauty just as much as its economic potential.  Otherwise, when we sing our hymns of grateful praise for the beauty of the earth, we will just be singing empty words.

“Keeping the earth” also means caring for our own bodies.  God used exactly the same material to make us as all the rest of creation! In fact, the Hebrew name given to the first man (Adam) comes from the Hebrew word adama, which means “ground” or “earth.”  Every Ash Wednesday we remember this truth, affirming that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.”  That can sound kind of bleak.  But it also is an acknowledgement that our bodies are intimately connected with everything that God created—sacred dust that we are given to treasure, care for, preserve, and protect. According to Genesis 2, our bodies are made of the same stuff that all the rest of creation is made of, and it’s our privilege and responsibility to care for God’s creation, including our own bodies.

In gratitude for the gift of God’s creation and our role in keeping it, the United Methodist Church has designated the Sunday closest to Earth Day as the “Festival of God’s Creation.”  Last Sunday would have been that day, but it didn’t seem right to mash it together with Easter. But, just like last year when we found that April Fool’s Day had more in common with Easter than you might expect, celebrating God’s creation along with the resurrection is a pretty appropriate thing to do, because the resurrection story is also a creation story.

The creation stories are not just reports about a project God completed long ago and handed off to human beings to take care of. They’re not simply stories about how the world and human beings came to exist.  They’re not just stories about the job God has commissioned us to do, as important as that is.

They are stories about God—our amazing, creative, creating God.  They’re about our God, who can make something out of nothing.  They’re about our God, who can declare through Isaiah, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”  They’re about our God who, as we read in Hebrews, “prepares worlds by God’s own word, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”  The stories in Genesis are about the creative power of God who called everything into being, not because God was lonesome or needed a planet-full of adoring fans. God created, and is still creating, because creativity and abundance are part of the very nature of God.

And because God is a God who did not stop creating at the end of the Genesis stories, there is another creation event in Scripture—another story where God takes what is not and turns it into what is, another story where God speaks life into being. It’s the story of the resurrection.

The resurrection is God’s ultimate creative act. In the resurrection God revealed the power of God’s creative nature, taking a lifeless, earthy body and raising it into a new life.  In the resurrection, God called a new world into being, a world free of the power of sin and fear of death, a world where God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

We experience the first fruits of that creative act when God creates something new in all the dry, dusty, lifeless places in us.  Paul assures us that everyone who is in Christ Jesus is a new creation. He breathes new life into us and makes our dry bones and spirits dance. When we are weary, burdened, or discouraged, God forms us into new creatures in the image of our Savior.

And, we are just the beginning of the new creation the resurrection inaugurated.  Paul tells us that all of creation is waiting for redemption.  Everything God created—plants, animals, mountains, valleys, rushing rivers, and the gusts of air that wrap themselves around our world—everything that suffers from the effects of human sin—waits with eager longing to be set free from its own bondage to decay and futility. The entirety of creation which God placed in our hands to be cherished and protected like a loved one is waiting to experience the fruits of the Spirit which are even now available to us. Living in the light of the resurrection, we offer hope to the rest of creation, that it too will be redeemed through God’s magnificent creative power.

It’s no accident that the resurrection happened in a garden.  In a tomb that seemed as inhospitable to life as the desert called Eden, God called life into being. Every day when we turn to Jesus and ask him to nourish us with his body and refresh us with living water, he calls forth new life in us.  As we keep God’s garden, we can rejoice in all of God’s acts of creation, especially the one that shows how God keeps us—the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young